11.09.2017

Tom Sancton's The Bettencourt Affair: The World's Richest Woman and the Scandal that Rocked Paris

The Notorious B.I.G may be right: more money more problems. In the case of Liliane Bettencourt, this observation is overwhelmingly correct. Heir to the forty-billion-dollar L'Oreal fortune, Liliane Bettencourt is the world's richest woman. Thanks to her questionable friendship to Francois-Marie Banier, photographer and writer, she also sits at the center of a multi-year court case. At issue is whether or not Francoise-Marie manipulated billions of dollars from the heiress or if Liliane willingly gave away her fortune to the younger man. In the opposition sits Liliane's estranged daughter Francoise Bettencourt Meyers, who argues that Francoise-Marie took advantage of her mother's naivete, deafness, and desire for friendship to make off with piles of inheritance in the form of properties, cash, and insurance policies.

As confusing as all of this is, it is merely the start. Francoise-Marie was not the only person to receive monetary gifts from the heiress or her family. Liliane was in the habit of giving money away - and with forty billion dollars, she probably felt some compulsion to share. Her husband, a mid-level politician, was more than happy to help distribute cash, and the Bettencourts were a known financial source for campaigners with dreams of holding office. When Liliane's accountant testified that Sarkozy, the French president, received donations beyond the French legal limit for his presidential campaign, the trial that at first appeared to be a family problem, took on country-wide significance.

Tom Sancton's The Bettencourt Affair: The World's Richest Woman and the Scandal that Rocked Paris has it all: wealth, scandal, manipulation, political malfeasance, courtroom drama, love, friendship, and betrayal. And in Tom Sancton's deft hands, it is well managed. Sancton, the French bureau chief for Time, was familiar with the Bettencourt Affair from its early days. (He apprised American readers of the scandal in a 2010 Vanity Fair article.) The knowledge shows - which is necessary. This is a convoluted case, with no certain outcome. As soon as a clear picture of the situation appears, it is immediately thrown into the murk. Francois-Marie Banier himself is a prime example of this elusiveness. He is at once charming, brilliant, manipulative, aggressive, and fearful.

Sancton embraces this tangled web of complicated characters and intrigue to propel his story. This is not fiction, but it feels that way: unanticipated testimony pops up at critical points, tightening the tension; actions at the start of the trial are re-interpreted near the end to mean the exact opposite of what was originally intended; relationships explode; the butler has secret tapes. It's a fiction goldmine, except that's all true.

Indeed, truth is often stranger than fiction, and in The Bettencourt Affair, it proves far more intriguing.

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